In The Business of Community Building

17 Jan

I wrote this months ago, intending to submit it to Tits and Sass. They (rightly) asked me to expand the topic to include other ad companies because this comes off kinda sounding like an ad for Eros. Unfortunately for everyone, I got busy and kept putting it on the back burner until it was far too late and I got incredibly caught up in other projects. But I stand by what I wrote. The folks from Eros will be back in LA in February (more details of future events to come) and will be hosting a Meet & Greet for sex workers and vendors to discuss their business needs. I’m pretty excited for it. One thing I forgot to mention is that Eros has been extremely responsive to feedback from sex workers, and goes out of their way to solicit opinions from their customers. The “what are your needs and what can we do to help you?” model is one that I think all allies (ourselves included) should follow.

-Jessie Nicole

I talk a big game about building community through Sex Workers Outreach Project. It’s one of my favorite phrases, and I think says a lot about our philosophy as a group. The very act of bringing sex workers together to develop of our own strategies for survival and success is a powerful statement of political resistance. This is not a hypothetical community. It already exists. As an industry we have developed our own preferred vendors, media, public figures, and technical language. Yet sex workers still feel isolated from each other and distanced from those we do business with. Consequently much of my time with SWOP-LA is spent trying to build connections with local businesses and organizations as well as individual sex workers and allies. I feel extremely lucky that over the past year we’ve met some wonderful partners, and have been able to build relationships that work out well for all parties. The strongest of these relationships has been with Eros.com

When we were first contacted by Stormi, the Director of Marketing Communications at Eros, I was ambivalent. I never had seen much of a reason to trust companies dependent on sex workers for profit. But Stormi emphasized from the very beginning that her priority was improving what Eros could do for sex workers. “We were actively looking for organizations to support within the community to emphasize our commitment to giving back to those who have made us successful.”  Their support has greatly impacted our ability to reach out to Los Angeles sex workers, and their efforts are paying off for both of us.

The night before the Exxxotica LA convention Eros hosted a dinner party with about 25 Los Angeles sex workers. It was the first time many of us had met in person, and we were able to build both friendships and professional connections. Advertisers on Eros were able to discuss the features of the site and hear the reasoning behind decisions that are made. The Eros staff was attentive in listening to what sex workers want for both business purposes and as a community. I was doing much the same, but from a more political perspective. I sat and talked over cocktails and food about our chapter of SWOP could do for the porn stars, escorts, and dominatrices in attendance. Many had never heard of SWOP-LA and everyone seemed happy to hear that people are taking on activist projects for sex workers’ rights. Initially it felt like there was a disconnect between “us” as activists and the interests of the other sex workers in attendance, but a few minutes of conversation went a long way towards bridging that gap. I was able to articulate my goals for our future and had the chance to listen to the immediate concerns of the community we represent in a way that doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Jessie Nicole on the last day of Exxxotica - Eros had left us their booth and lounge area

That communication continued throughout the rest of the weekend. Our target audience at Exxxotica was the workers at the convention. While we were concerned with selling t-shirts and reaching the clients and consumers, the outreach priority is always on sex workers first. We met sex workers, people in the sex industry who didn’t necessarily identify as sex workers, vendors, media people, and fellow activists. We shared cross-traffic with the Eros booth, and were able to combine labor forces to look out for each other.

And that big game I talk about building community? I felt it that weekend. Because it’s about more than donated ad space from Eros or us telling sex workers to discuss advertising needs with Stormi. Those are secondary benefits to me. What was inspiring was the feeling that we are starting to change the industry to benefit those working in it. And isn’t that what’s at the heart of sex work activism? I’m imagining what could happen if all the various companies sex workers interacted with took a similar approach. Why can’t strip club managers, other advertising sites, brothels, web hosts, credit card processing services, clothing companies, sex toy shops, and condom manufacturers started showing the same dedication to improving the sex industry? They have as much of an economic interest as Eros does in the well being of sex workers. And some do of course! But I’m hoping those relationships get much stronger in the near future. I know that it’s unlikely and unrealistic for those who profit from the exploitation of sex workers to change their business model or behavior, but it’s encouraging to know that there are other company models out there.

More than being good business partners and colleagues, the folks from Eros have become good friends. “We are a company that cares – and sure, we are a business and need to make money, but we are determined to invest back into this community and those who use it” declared Stormi after Exxxotica. Our partnership with Eros continues to grow and open up new opportunities. I’m hoping that Eros’s philosophy becomes the example for other sex work oriented businesses to follow. It’s good for business, and good for the community.

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